Study Guide

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock Themes

  • Love

    It’s hard to tell whether Prufrock is really in love with the person he is talking to. He speaks about himself a lot, and he ignores her, or "us," for most of the poem. Maybe he’s too shy to speak his mind, although "cowardly" seems more accurate. There are a couple of points where he almost overcomes his massive fear of rejection, especially when he is standing on top of the stairs and wondering, "Do I dare?" (line 38). But he’s so vain and so taken up with trivial pleasure like coffee and peaches that it’s hard to believe that the feeling he has is really "love." It might just be lust or just a strong attraction. Whatever it is, the feeling never goes anywhere, and Prufrock is left to drown with his would-be beloved in the deep, deep ocean.

    Questions About Love

    1. Is the title accurate in calling the poem a "love song"? Do you think Prufrock is really in love?
    2. At what points in the poem does he seem more interested in love, and at what points does he not seem to care?
    3. What is the real reason that Prufrock never asks his "overwhelming question"?
    4. Prufrock imagines that his love would say, "That is not what I meant at all." What would she be responding to, and what did he think she ‘"meant."

    Chew on This

    Prufrock is not just some stalker. He truly believes his beloved has sent him signals that she likes him, but he is worried that he might be misinterpreting her signals.

    Prufrock can only experience love through other people, at second- and third-hand.

  • Manipulation

    The poem’s epigraph is a quotation of Guido da Montefeltro, a particularly manipulative chap who finds a place near the bottom of Dante’s Hell in Inferno. Right away, this epigraph sets off alarm bells that we should be suspicious of everything that shy old Mr. Prufrock says. First he’s trying to lead us down dark, winding streets, then he’s trying to convince us of how decisive he is. Prufrock is one of the most deceptive narrators you’ll ever encounter.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. Guido da Montefeltro only told Dante the story of his life because he thought Dante would not return to earth to repeat it. Is Prufrock doing the same thing in this poem?
    2. Do you think Prufrock is lying outright about some of his claims, or is he just misleading?
    3. How does the structure of the poem play to Prufrock’s advantage?
    4. If Prufrock is so manipulative, then why is it so easy for a reader to see through his deception?

    Chew on This

    Prufrock purposefully arranges his song to leave out all the parts that would make him look bad.

    Although Prufrock says he is not prophet, he’s really the prophet of the so-called "modern man."

  • Passivity

    Oh, Prufrock, why didn’t you just go into your lover’s "chamber" and ask her your darned "overwhelming question" when you had the chance?! Prufrock is the dramatic equivalent of a bump on a log. He never does anything. In this poem, no one does. Actions are discussed as either future possibilities or as thing already done and past. And not for a second do we believe that Prufrock has "known" all the things he claims to have known. The only thing this guy is good at is eating and wearing nice clothes.

    Questions About Passivity

    1. Why does Prufrock "turn back and descend the stair" instead of entering the next room?
    2. What kinds of things does Prufrock claim he has done? Are any of them impressive or noteworthy?
    3. How does Prufrock pretend to be more assertive than he is?
    4. Can passivity alone make someone a bad person?

    Chew on This

    The entire poem is one big, long digression so that Prufrock doesn’t have to tell his life story.

    Prufrock’s passivity is dangerous because it makes him hold tightly to the status quo. He is willing to go to great lengths to prevent things from changing.

  • Time

    In relation to time, this poem is a total trip. It ricochets back and forth between the past and the future, almost never settling on the present. One moment Prufrock is talking about all the things he’s going to do before having tea; the next moment he has had tea and still doesn’t have the energy to do anything. But somehow, by the end of the poem, Prufrock’s big chance has passed him by, and he becomes a sad, old man in flannel pants.

    Questions About Time

    1. Where does the poem begin, and where does it end? Are these points at different times?
    2. How many events actually "happen" over the course of the poem?
    3. At what points does the poem seem to go back in time?
    4. How would you explain these lines: "In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse"?

    Chew on This

    No time actually passes over the course of the poem.

    "Prufrock" must be set in Hell because people repeat the same thoughts and actions over and over, like someone running in place.

  • Appearances

    There seem to be no complete human beings in this poem. There are only bits and pieces of people: an arm here, some eyes there, maybe a couple of voices in the next room. The person whose appearance we know most about is Prufrock, and we kind of wish we hadn't learned about his bald spot or his bony arms and legs. The lack of bodies is one of the signs that might make us think the poem is set in Hell.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Why is so much attention paid to clothing in the poem?
    2. Why does Prufrock get so excited by the arm with "light brown hair" that he sees under the lamplight?
    3. What do we know about the appearance’s of the woman Prufrock loves? Do you think the same woman is being described over and over?
    4. Why are there descriptions of "mermaids" and "sea-girls" at the end of the poem?

    Chew on This

    Although Prufrock mistrusts doctors and scientists, he acts like one when he "dissects" people in his perception.

    Prufrock is more like a strange sea-creature than a man.